Minimum Competency for Defensive Pistol

Minimum Competency.

Minimum – the least or smallest amount or quantity possible, attainable, or required.

Competency – the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

When it comes to the use of a pistol for self-defense, minimum competency would be the least amount of skill and ability needed in order to use that gun to successfully defend yourself.

What would that be?

I got to thinking about it. I see people at gun ranges that blaze away at a target 3 yards in front of them, and they are barely hitting paper. I see people slow plinking, taking one slowly and carefully aimed shot, checking their target, taking their time to set up again for another shot, repeat. I see videos of people attending “tactical band camp” training, throwing lots of lead, but are they hitting anything? are they doing anything effective? I see people passing their Texas CHL shooting test, and their B-27 target looks like it was peppered by a shotgun blast. I see people who are really good at shooting competitions, but struggle with defensive concepts.

Will this cut it? Is this enough true skill and knowledge to survive and win? Or is it a false sense? Sometimes in life it doesn’t matter if our assessment of our competency is different from the reality. But in a case like this, when your life is what’s at stake, you need to be soberingly aware of your skill and ability.

As friend and fellow KR Training Assistant Instructor Tom Hogel likes to say, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. If you don’t know what it takes, if you don’t know what you can and cannot do, well… what’s that going to get you? So, I started to think about what a minimum set of drills would be to try to illustrate this concept to folks. That is, if you shot these drills and could not do them cleanly on-demand, then you don’t have the minimum competency. That someone who thinks “I’ve got what it takes”, you give them this drill(s), have them shoot it right then and there, and if they cannot do it no they don’t have what they think they have.

This isn’t to say once you can do these drills then you are done and can rest here; no, because this is minimum. Karl Rehn likes to point out something he learned from Paul Ford (former Austin Police SWAT member). Paul pointed out that in a gunfight you will do about 70% of your worst day at the range. Think about that: take your worst day (under the ideal circumstances of the range), and now make it a lot worse, and that’s how you’ll do. If this is how it goes, how good do you think you really need to be so when the flag flies and your skills degrade to being “worse than your worst”, then that level is still high enough to get you through? So, you must train well beyond these minimums.

But that said, if you cannot perform to the minimum, the sooner you can know that the better. The sooner you can work to remedy it.

Hasn’t this already been defined? Well, maybe. Take a look at this extensive collection of handgun standards. If we have so many standards, do we really have a standard? Well, we do have to consider these standards are likely within a particular context, e.g. qualifying for police, carry permits, etc.. Furthermore, every trainer out there wants to have their own set of standards and performance assessment, but are their standards truly testing something? are they well thought out towards achieving a particular end? or did they just string together a bunch of stuff so they could slap their name on a drill? And is there really a “standard” or “drill” that is trying to answer the question I’m asking?

Ultimately, my motivation is trying to bring some cold truth to folks. I speak to people all the time that passed the Texas CHL shooting test, maybe even got a perfect score. They are quite proud of their accomplishment, and consider that the end – that they have passed the CHL test, they know all they need to know, that they are as proficient as they need to be, and will be able to handle themselves should they ever need it. I speak with people who grew up around guns, learned to shoot in the back pasture, but it’s evident from watching them they really couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag much less deal with a response to being assaulted. I’m no expert, but I’ve learned enough to know that I don’t know. Furthermore, I know it’s better to have your bubble burst when it doesn’t matter, than to see your world fall apart when everything is on the line. If I’m in the business of helping people protect themselves and their loved ones, I’d like to see what I could do to come up with a simple way to help people assess if they truly have the minimal skills or not.

So then, what is minimum competency? The Texas Legislature and Department of Public Safety think the TX CHL Shooting Test is minimum. Karl Rehn formulated the “3 Seconds or Less Drill” that’s based around the typical gunfight, and this test gets used in the various Defensive Pistol Level 1,2,3 classes at KR Training. I could be remembering this wrong, but I swore one of Tom Givens’ students only took Rangemaster’s Level 1 class and was able to successfully defend themselves. Claude Werner seems to come up with different statistical analyses of gunfight realities, and one could argue it’s mostly (only?) important to have a gun and draw it.

Defining “minimum competency for defensive pistol” is hard.

However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should avoid doing it.

I think before we can answer the question, it’s important to define and frame the problem. If we’re going to define minimum competency for a self-defense situation, then we need to first know what is a self-defense situation. We’re not hunting. We’re military nor police (tho it’s possible there’s some overlap). We’re talking about private citizens going about their daily lives, but having to deal with robbery, assault, burglary, rape, etc. and refusing to be a victim of such crimes.

Tom Givens has examined incidents of FBI and DEA agents, along with the 60+ student incidents he’s had. What are the common threads?

  • Distance between victim and assailant? up to about a car length. But exceptions can occur (e.g. out to 25 yards)
  • You’re in plain clothes, gun is concealed, you need fast access.
  • Occur in public areas such as parking lots, shopping malls. Home is rare.
  • Shots fired? 3-5, on average
  • Multiple assailants are not uncommon

What Tom’s data concludes is that a typical private citizen “incident” is:

  • armed robbery in some form
  • 1-2 assailants highly likely
  • 3-7 yards
  • limited response time
  • “3 shots, 3 steps/yards, 3 seconds”

I know I lean on Givens’ teaching and data a good deal, but Tom’s a top-notch researcher. Certainly to an extent he’s biased, but what Tom is biased towards isn’t necessarily “pro gun, rah rah rah”. Rather he has a bias towards helping people stay alive in the face of a violent world (like Memphis, TN), and to do so you better have a solid, methodical approach towards finding the Truth and what really works; anything else will get people killed. So I consider Tom’s research serious and genuine. Besides, you don’t have to take his word for it: the data is out there, so you can see for yourself.

Another way to look at it? It’s the ability to get:

  • multiple hits
  • in a small area
  • from “close” range
  • quickly

Unfortunately, if you just say that, everyone’s going to define it their own way. So we need to have clear definitions and create standards based upon the clear definition.

In her book Effective DefenseGila Hayes described a simple test:

  • 5 shots
  • in 5 inches
  • a 5 yards
  • within 5 seconds

Some people refer to it as the “forty-five” drill, some the “4×5” or “5×4” or “4^5” or “5^4”. Claude Werner has a “5^5” variation, adding “repeat the drill 5 times to eliminate luck and ensure consistency”. Greg Ellfritz made a “6×6” varation. However you label it, doesn’t that seem to mesh directly with multiple hits? small area? close range? quickly? It’s quite a simple drill, and looks like it can fit the bill.

Looks are deceiving tho, because it doesn’t require you to draw from a holster. If the data shows that most incidents are going to be in public spaces, that means you need to be carrying the gun (i.e. it’s not on a table, in the nightstand, in the glove box, etc.), which means it’s in a holster, which means it’s concealed (under clothing, in a bag, etc.). So this implies you know how to draw and present a gun from concealment. That’s actually two implications: drawing from concealment, and being able to carry concealed in public.

If you’re going to carry concealed in public, in most states in the USA that means you need to have some sort of concealed handgun/weapons/carry license/permit. Many times that means you have to pass some sort of shooting test. To receive a concealed handgun license (CHL) in Texas, there is a shooting test. Notice the test is structured around getting multiple hits, (somewhat) quickly, from various “close” ranges. It’s a bit better than Gila’s test since it works different amounts of shots and different distances. But it fails on a few counts. First, the B-27 target and “within the 8-ring” is akin to hitting the side of a barn; that’s not “in a small area”. Second, just like Gila’s, there is no drawing from a holster. Did you catch that? The Texas test for obtaining a license to carry a concealed handgun — which implies a need to draw the handgun out of concealment — doesn’t require you to show you can draw the gun from concealment. Note, I’m not advocating changing the test because there are reasons why it is the way it is. But do these tests truly provide you with the needed skills? or a false sense?

I will say this.

Both of these tests are something I could label “sub-minimal”. That is, they are reasonable tests, but not quite to the standard we’re trying to define.

I believe the primary reason for Gila’s test isn’t so much a proficiency test as a shopping test. That is, if you get a gun, you need to be able to do her test with that gun. If you cannot, that is probably not a suitable gun for you. All too often I see a woman that comes to class with the gun her husband or boyfriend gave her: she has small, weak hands, and he gave her a Sig P226 which she simply cannot operate — she would easily fail Gila’s test. As soon as we swap her with a more reasonably fitting gun, her skills and abilities didn’t change, but now she could pass Gila’s test. If you read the linked-to article on the 6×6 variation, Greg Ellfritz struggled with the Ruger LCP because it’s too small a gun (fit) for him. So perhaps consider this test more of a good way to suss out appropriate equipment than skill.

But certainly, if you cannot perform Gila’s test (or I’d say Claude’s variation, to ensure you didn’t get lucky on the one run) or if you cannot clean the Texas CHL, and you cannot do these consistently and on-demand, then certainly you do not have the minimum competency. These aren’t enough due to shortcomings in the drills themselves, but they are a rung on the ladder.

So if these are “sub-minimal”, what might be minimal?

It seems we have expanded our criteria:

  • multiple hits
  • in a small area
  • from close range
  • quickly
  • drawing from concealment

To see what else might be necessary, we can also look at video. Hooray for video! Hooray for dashcams, security cameras, everyone having a phone with a camera, and then a willingness to share all of this on video websites like YouTube. You can see a lot of what really goes on.

One thing that happens often? Hands. Shooting with two hands, shooting with one hand. There’s no question you should try to shoot with both hands. Why? You’re faster. This goes back to “quickly”, and shooting slower is the opposite of “quickly”. That said, the reality of life is your situation may require you to shoot one-handed — and perhaps with your weak hand. You may have something in your hands that you cannot drop: like a child. Or another reality is, sometimes you just start shooting with one hand. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it — we know better, but yet something happens in the head and you just start shooting one-handed. It’s good to know how to do it.

At this point, a drill like KR Training’s 3 Seconds Or Less Drill starts to come into play. This drill was intentionally designed around the the “3 shots, 3 yards, 3 seconds” typical gunfight. It works on multiple hits, in a small area, from close range, quickly, drawing from concealment, two- and one-handed shooting.

The drill also adds in another aspect: movement. Do we need to move in a self-defense situation? You betcha. Karl often asks, “is it better to shoot, or not get shot?” not get shot. Some like to phrase it that incoming bullets have the right of way. Thankfully since bullets only travel in a straight line (well ok, an arc, and there’s wind, but go with me here, this isn’t Wanted), a simple but large enough side-step is important. It “gets you off the ‘X'”, it causes the assailant to reset their OODA loop, and well… movement is going to happen.

That’s the thing. Movement is going to happen, or at least, it should. Generally, something happens and people scatter, running away from the source of trouble. This of course is a good thing (distance yourself from the problem). However, it’s really either move or shoot, not shoot on the move. Paul Howe pretty much says to do one or the other:

shooting on the move, it’s a skill all shooters aspire to learn and spend a great deal of time and effort trying to master. I’ve never had to use it in combat. When moving at a careful hurry, I stopped, planted and made my shots. When the bullets were flying, I was sprinting from cover to cover, moving too fast to shoot. I didn t find an in-between. If I slowed down enough to make a solid hit when under fire, I was an easy target, so I elected not to.

As for shooting and closing on a target, it only makes the bad guys accuracy better and walking into a muzzle may help you to test your new vest sooner than you wanted to. Diagonal movement works, but again if you have to slow down too much, you re an easy target, and are generally in the open. Speed can act as your security in this case to get you to a point of cover.

Training to “shoot on the move” with a Groucho Marx walk? Well, nice skill, but is it really important within our context? Howe’s case was military, and if he doesn’t need it there, would we really need it in the “3 seconds” of a private citizen self-defense incident? A little movement, like a quick and decisive (and far enough) side-step on the draw is good. Much more than that? Not really needed.

So now we’re starting to find things we don’t need.

Are there other things we don’t need, in terms of minimum competency?

I asked Tom Givens, of his 60 students that were involved in self-defense incidents, did any need to reload? Further clarifying, if so, did any reload as a part of the fight? Or was it administrative after the fight was over?

Tom’s response to this question:


None of ours had to reload and continue shooting.

I can think of four off the top of my head that went to slide lock, however, further shooting was not required at that point.


Think about reloads. If typical private citizen gunfights are 3-5 shots, that’s not even enough to warrant reloading a snub revolver. Of course, that’s average. With Tom’s students, I think the range was 1 to 11 shots fired, but again, no reloads (tho apparently some came close). So do we need reloading as a minimal skill? It would seem not.

For that matter, how about malfunction clearing, be it simple failure to eject, stovepipe, double-feed, whatever type. Do malfunctions occur enough that we need to consider them a minimal skill? Again, data would point towards no. This isn’t to say it’s not useful and good to know, but remember we’re looking at minimal competency.

So if you start to look at tests like the FBI Qualification or Rangemaster Level 5, are these reasonable “minimal” tests? Nope. I would say there are somewhere above the minimum. They cover shots out to 25 yards, which doesn’t fit the bill of a typical gunfight. They cover reloads. They cover malfunctions. They also cover things like changing positions (e.g. going to kneeling). Again, all good skills to have, but beyond minimum.

Look at the FASTestthe Farnam Drill (or Tom Givens’ flavor “3M Drill”), IDPA ClassifierGunsite StandardHackathorn Standards, the list goes on. At this point, what new skills or techniques are being added? Shooting from kneeling, from prone, around barriers, turn and shoot, multiple targets, transition to a backup gun, disability (e.g. loss of one hand so must do everything with the “other” hand, including reloads), using a light (weapon-mounted or held in the other hand), and the list goes on. Are these skills that are involved in the typical gunfight? Well, maybe one here or there but the exception does not prove the rule. All in all, these sorts of things just aren’t being done in the typical incident. Thus, it’s hard to argue they are part of “minimum competency”.

So have I been able to define “minimum competency” required for defensive handgun use?

Maybe, maybe not – I’m sure there will be folks who take issue with what I’ve written. It seems when we look at what unfolds in a typical incident and what needs to be done to handle that typical incident, you get:

  • drawing from concealment
    • And perhaps moving on that draw (like a side-step then stop; not shoot-and-move)
  • getting multiple hits
  • in a small area
    • 5″ circle? 6″ circle? 8″ circle? consider human anatomy
  • from close range
    • Within a car length, so say 0-5 yards
  • quickly
    • 3 seconds or less
  • using both hands, or maybe one hand (or the other)

In his email to me, Tom Givens said of this:

If I had to list the prime skills for concealed carry, the list might be
presentation from concealed carry
shoot with 2 hands
shoot with 1 hand, both dominant and non-dominant
reload, slide forward and empty gun
fix simple malfunctions like failure to eject, TRB.

Everything beyond that is certainly good to know, but unlikely to be used by typical CCW.

When I asked Karl Rehn, his answer is what I expected:

[My] 3 seconds or less [drill] is my answer to that question.

All in all, the same set of minimal skills are being presented.

So what you need is the ability to do the above – at bare minimum. If you cannot do the above, you’ve got work to do. If you cannot do the above, there is no shame in that, if you use it as motivation to get better. However, there is shame in letting your ego continue to lie to you.

Remember that I am working to establish a minimum.

Let me restate the problem: Private citizens being the unfortunate victim of a violent crime. The choice to use a handgun as a tool to contend with their immediate victimization. To use the tool with some measure of effectiveness, one needs some modicum of skill with that tool. And, that you should have a realistic assessment of your skill with that tool, instead of a false impression.

We have to look at what really happens in a violent crime. No, nothing will be perfect, nothing will be absolute, but we can see enough of a pattern if we look at enough crimes, we can then formulate a solution for dealing with it. This is like solving any problem.

That you can plink tin cans in the back pasture is a false sense. That you can pass the TX CHL test is a false sense. You need to be able to draw the handgun from concealment and get multiple fast, accurate hits on a small target within a reasonable distance. You need to be able to do this with both hands, and one hand (each hand). This is the bare minimum.

Tests like Gila Hayes’, the TX CHL, those are good starts but sub-minimal. If you cannot do these, seek further instruction and practice. Tests like “3 Seconds or Less” are a good standard for bare minimum. It might look easy on paper, but I’ve been through more than enough classes where students struggle — yes, more practice is needed. Even a test like the FBI Qualification can be considered a good minimum (can you clean stage I and stage II? maybe stage III without the reload, and stage IV?).

I would suggest this.

Start with a test like the Texas CHL. Work until you can clean it on-demand. Then make it a little harder by drawing from concealment, but otherwise change nothing about the test. When you can clean that on-demand, use a better target like an ISPC or IDPA target, Rangemaster RM-Q2, IALEFI-Q, QIT-99, etc.. Work to clean it on-demand.

Move up to the “3 Seconds or Less” drill. Work to clean it on demand.

After this, you’ll start to move beyond minimum competency. Skills like slide-lock (emergency/speed) reloads, malfunction clearing, shooting at distances out to 25 yards, etc. are going to come into play and are well-worth your time to learn and study. Courses like the FBI Qualification, the Rangemaster Level V, are good for this. But if you want something simpler, I’d say the Farnam Drill is probably one of the most compact tests out there. When you start to get into this level of things, you’ll find lots of drills out there you can use as testing and assessment, so you’ll be able to find what you need.

Note: that doesn’t necessarily mean to shoot these drill as your practice. Rather, shoot the drill and see how you do (test, assess). See what you do well, see what you need to work on. When you identify what you need to work on, your practice time (both live fire and dry fire) should work on the fundamentals necessary to help that. Formulate a plan and a program to help you achieve the goal of cleaning the drill. Work on those skills for a while, then come back and shoot the drill again. Keep notes on your progress.

Keep in mind the Paul Ford “70% of your worst day”. Look at how you’re performing “at your worst” and think about how much worse that will really be. Use that as a guide to establish where you really need your skills to be.

So many things push to a higher standard, and that’s good. The problem with always pushing for higher standards, to have the most uber-tacticool or difficult challenging drill/test/standard is it starts to make you wonder where the baseline is. Everyone’s out to push things high, so how does that look to someone just starting out? Does it make it seem like an unachievable goal? That if it’s going to take me 5 years of dedicated work to get there, how does that help me deal with the death threats I’m currently receiving from my crazy ex-spouse? Or if some standards are setting the bar too low, are people getting a false sense of accomplishment and ability that could wind up doing them more harm than good should they need to call on those skills?

You don’t need to be a Rob Leatham in order to protect yourself. But you likely need to be better than you think you are.

The point I’m trying to make is to not make this the standard to train to , but rather I’m out to bust false senses of ability. I think it’s wise to know what minimum competency is, and to not consider “minimum” to mean either some really low-level that’s essentially equated to “skill-less” or to mean once you’ve met the minimum that’s satisfactory and you can stop your journey. It’s none of those things. It’s merely a way to come to some sort of realistic terms of where your skills and ability lie. When your life is at stake, you need honest assessment. Ego or pretense could get you killed. But sometimes it’s neither of those; it’s simply that you don’t know what you don’t know, so here’s an opportunity to learn.

(I’d like to thank Karl Rehn, Tom Hogel, and Tom Givens for their input, mentorship, and contribution to this effort).

This article was originally posted as a multi-part series. I had originally written it as a single article (what you see here) but when it was evident how long it was, I thought it made better sense to break into smaller chunks. Here are links to those smaller chunks:

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